REVIEW: West Side Story, Sunderland Empire

LOVE STORY ... West Side Story is on at the Sunderland Empire.

LOVE STORY ... West Side Story is on at the Sunderland Empire.

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SET against a backdrop of racial gang warfare, West Side Story retells the dangers of mid-century New York to a new audience.

The stage is kept bare, bar the moving skeletons of signature Manhattan “walk up” apartments.

West Side Story is coming to the Sunderland Empire.''Katie Hall as Maria and Louis Maskell as Tony.

West Side Story is coming to the Sunderland Empire.''Katie Hall as Maria and Louis Maskell as Tony.

And, as is the style of many modern musicals, the retelling of the now classic show uses black and white film projected on the back of the stage to enhance the city feel.

A little slow at the opening, the tale of doomed lovers, Puerto Rican Maria, and American Tony, torn apart by gangs The Sharks (Puerto Rican) and The Jets (American) quickly gathers pace.

The first number, When You’re a Jet, eases the audience into the story rather than building tension and immediately explaining the animosity between the groups, as later numbers Procession/Nightmare, and Somewhere do.

Leonard Bernstein’s well-known score, still current to modern audiences, also intricately explains the influx of foreigners into the USA at the time the musical was written – 1957, with famed songs like America.

The dancers cleverly replicate love, fighting, and even rape using the entire original choreography. And, though it is sometimes hard to understand the dialogue due to the thick Broadway American accents adopted, the tricky footwork easily enables viewers to understand what is being depicted.

As is often the case, it’s not the lead actors who steal the show. Understudy Dom Hodson, who stepped in to replace Louis Maskell as Tony, was effortless, and Matthew Hawksley, as Action, often comic. Djalenja Scott, playing Bernardo’s – leader of The Sharks’ – girlfriend, shone thanks to a combination of drama, and a little comedy.

Monica Turnbull